Study Hall

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Some Things I’ve Noticed About Working With Sound…

The tireless pursuit of the craft of audio, and never thinking that we know it all...

As with politics, it can be very difficult to be rational when we think, discuss and make decisions about sound. Of course, much about sound is subjective, even if there are quantifiable aspects to what we do.

No matter how it looks on Smaart, the end result has to be something that satisfies the audience, or at least satisfies us – and we should (hopefully) be the toughest customer of our own product.

Opinions Vary…

The first thing that came to mind while thinking about all of this is that microphones seem to be one subject about which people have more passionate opinions than just about any other piece of kit.

I was reminded of all this when perusing forums here on PSW, noting that of all the questions asked, the ones that get the most responses are along the lines of “What’s the best vocal mic for a female singer?” or “What’s the best choice for guitar cabinet mic?”

In other words, opinions are like microphones, everyone has at least three favorites… Maybe this is because there are so many microphones, and even models that have been on the market for 40 years are still being used today.

But I suspect that it is also because mics are where sound gets magically changed into electrical impulses, and thus there is such a huge opportunity to get things “right” or “wrong.” People seem really polarized about this, and count me among them.

There’s just something about the fact that microphones are the focal point where art meets technology. The emotive sound of the human voice becomes electrons moving on a wire.

The beautiful sparkle of that pre-war Martin moves the air, which moves a diaphragm and coil, and somewhere a meter moves in response. And then a loudspeaker changes the final resulting signal into a much louder version so thousands can hear that sparkle, but it all starts at the microphone.

To me, the right choice of mics and the knowledge of where to put them makes such a huge difference in the end result. First of all, it makes mixing much easier and reduces the need for EQ on the console, which is where we tend to get ourselves in trouble.

With modern DSP-based consoles, this is less of a problem, but still an issue. Why add 6 dB at 10K when we can just use a brighter-sounding microphone at the starting point?

One last thought is that I think the choice of mics has evolved along with other changes in the PA world. The use of in-ear monitors (IEM) and the fabulous loudspeaker systems of today mean that you can actually choose mics based on the way they sound, rather than just simply to avoid feedback or to overcome the loss of highs in the mains.

In my opinion you have to become familiar with these microphones and trust your own ears on your artist’s sound rather than relying on what anyone else says. Of course it can be useful to see what others say in order to narrow the choices.

But beyond that, it’s up to you.

Everyone Notices

Picture without sound Is surveillance. You’ve heard that one, right? And sound without picture is radio… you get the idea.

But my point is that sound is so critically important to any type of entertainment, and yet it seems to be an afterthought in so many cases. When things go wrong with sound, everyone notices.

Ever had massive feedback at one of your gigs? If so, then you know what I’m talking about. Or how about a loud hum? Same thing – people notice.

But I would be willing to bet that if one of the banks of lights didn’t work at a show, very few people would notice.

Unfortunately, we’ve probably experienced the fact that there seems to be a universal hate for the “sound guy” or the “techie” or whatever semi-derogatory phrase might be used in a given culture. It refers to “Those nerds around here that screw up the sound.”

Why does the event producer, sometimes the corporate client, festival organizer, city cultural officer, or other “person in charge” always seem to take offense when it is brought up that the budget for the PA is not even close to adequate for the event at hand?

Meanwhile, why is there always plenty of money for decorations, the hotel ballroom, spokesmodels, door prizes, etc.?

Sometimes I think it is because they see too many movies, and not only that, but Hollywood gets it wrong. They have created this illusion that:

A) Whenever someone walks up to a microphone, we should hear feedback, and
B) loudspeakers don’t exist but everyone has great sound, and maybe
C) when they show sound reinforcement in the 1950s, despite the horrible mics of the day and incredibly limited PA systems, sounded just like the records of the day (in other words great).

The result is this disconnect between how people imagine an event and what it really takes in terms of budget, logistics, sightlines, AC power, etc. to really make things work.

How do we fix this?

I’m not sure we can directly do anything. But of course it helps to be confident, competent, and be ready to give references. Maybe even talk to a few of your past good clients (if you haven’t already) and prep them that future potential customers may be getting in touch with them.

And finally, be diplomatic. Sure, there are times when it’s appropriate to simply drop the job, but usually there is a professional way to nudge those involved to consider just how important sound really is. Maybe the thing to do is make a short video that starts out with no sound at all, then when the sound comes in, it’s distorted, then clears up a bit but there’s a loud buzz.

Then, at last, the sound is clean and clear. Ask the client at which point the sound became acceptable and then explain that you are the vendor that can provide them with quality sound because you know how important it is to them.

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